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Behind the Numbers: Sunday Night Baseball


In 1990, ESPN secured the rights to hold the exclusive broadcast of MLB’s Sunday Night games, giving the network one of its early coups en route to becoming the most important sports channel. Ever since, the program has been a staple in ESPN’s lineup, later joined by weekday national broadcasts of MLB games. However, there is still something special about the Sunday exclusives, as they are games that stand alone in the baseball schedule, and receive the entire spotlight. With 28 teams playing day games on Sunday, we are left with a single game to close out the week – games that are usually reserved for the best and brightest.

While we no longer have the original Jon Miller-Joe Morgan pairing calling games, ESPN still reserves some of its biggest names to call these telecasts, which currently include the likes of Curt Schilling and Buster Olney.

If you’ve watched enough Sunday Night broadcasts, you may have noticed that they tend to feature the same teams and stadiums on a regular basis, or that home teams tend to come out on top. While it makes sense for ESPN to save this spot to the most marketable teams, they also get the opportunity to cherry-pick certain matchups via flex scheduling from June to the end of the season. This ensures the chance to see playoff-implication games towards the stretch, or probably an enticing pitching matchup.

With this in mind, I set out to examine the distribution and results of Sunday Night Baseball games in the past 5 full seasons. Each season has included from 24 to 26 games broadcasted by ESPN on this slot, which always starts at 8pm ET, only scarcely rivaled by Rangers or Padres home games that have been scheduled for Sunday afternoons.

Sunday Night games represent mostly the most brand-name franchises, but also reflect success and relevance in the standings. Here are the most relevant stats, from 2010 to 2014, and then a look at how it looks for the rest of 2015.

SNB Home Games 2010-2014

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During this span, there have been 126 Sunday Night Baseball games broadcast by ESPN. As expected, the usual suspects are atop the leaderboard, with big-market teams and rivalries marking their territory. Red Sox-Yankees and Dodgers-Giants occupy their fair share, while there are also spots for the Cardinals-Cubs showdown and successful teams like the Braves, Rangers, and Phillies (pre 2013).

Other squads have gotten their spot appearances. For example, the Twins got two SNB games in Target Field’s opening season of 2010, but haven’t been on any broadcast, home or away, since. Also, the Astros made their sole appearance during their first game as an AL team. Conversely, the recent success of smaller teams like Oakland, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and even Washington, has prompted ESPN to include them in this club, albeit limitedly.

The Reds are a weird case, considering their modest success and small-market tag, but their recent rivalry with the Cardinals has carried them to above average results here. On the other hand, the perennial contender Tigers have been mostly shunned, and in fact had only gotten 3 home dates prior to 2014, where they matched that total. Playing in the obscure AL Central will do that to you.

While most of the league is present in this table, there are still six teams that are waiting for ESPN’s call to host a Sunday night game: the Indians, Rockies, Blue Jays, Mariners, Marlins, and Diamondbacks.

SNB Total Appearances 2010-2014

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Nothing much changes, except that the Yankees grab the top spot and the Rockies and Indians make an appearance. This means that we are now 5 years and counting without seeing Toronto, Arizona, Miami, or Seattle on a Sunday night broadcast.

What we can define here is that the top 9 teams made 67.85% of the total chances, leaving behind a clear definition of the haves and have-nots in MLB. Even as TV revenue is evenly distributed around the league, the forgotten franchises could benefit from receiving national coverage for merchandising and brand purposes.

We could see some changes coming for teams like the Astros, Padres, Indians, and Twins, as their young influx of talent will certainly make them constant contenders in the following years. Conversely, teams like Atlanta and Texas may be losing some prime-time games in the near future. But overall, the needle will always err on the side of the big boys.

So far in 2015, we have already seen 13 of the 22 possible spots distributed among only 4 teams (Yankees and Cardinals 4, Red Sox 3, Tigers 2), and the programming masters at ESPN may not vary their selections that much going forward.

Scores and Stats

It is well known that Sunday tends to be a favorable day for home teams. Between the umpire’s and road team’s desire to leave town early, the larger homer crowds, and the fatigue from a week of play, home teams have a lot working in their favor.

Does this hold up for Sunday night games? Before checking any numbers, it would make sense. The later starting time gives players a chance to rest and prepare under their normal schedule, but it also gives them the knowledge that a late finish means a late departure from town.

After checking the actual results, the number were a bit more overwhelming that I thought.

SNB Home Team Winning Percentage

2010: 19-7 (.731)
2011: 17-7 (.708)
2012: 14-10 (.583)
2013: 19-7 (.731)
2014: 12-14 (.462)

Overall: 81-45 (.642)

Outside of a blip in 2014, numbers have leaned heavily towards home squads, suggesting that the circumstantial evidence is actually true. Home teams have only been shut out in 5 of the 126 games in the sample, while they average over 1 run scored above the road squads. If you expect that teams trying to go home would produce low-scoring games, Sunday night affairs would naturally be tight and with runs at a premium.

SNB Runs per Game

2010: 8.65
2011: 7.83
2012: 8.95
2013: 8.69
2014: 7.92

Overall: 8.4

Sunday night games have been almost aligned with the league average during the span (8.49), so at least there’s an aspect during this games that doesn’t change much from what the rest of baseball is doing.

To highlight some other stats, know that out of the 126 games studied, only 7 went into extra innings (with a 2011 games between Tampa and Boston going 16 frames), while there were two that were called after 5 innings. The only Kansas City home game was actually suspended last season with the Royals trailing 4-2 in the bottom of the tenth, and they’d lose anyway when it resumed a few weeks later.

The most common matchup, naturally, has been Yankees-Red Sox. With 3 games broadcast per year, they hold a comfortable lead with 15 contests between them shown on ESPN. Boston lead the series 8-7

SNB in 2015

Through June 14, there have already been 11 Sunday Night games showed on ESPN. The trend for parity has continued in 2015, as home teams are only 6-5 so far, with games being scarce on runs (6.8 per game).

ESPN has already confirmed a few games going forward, but remember that they have the power to decide which games to broadcast on short notice. Stay tuned for updates, as they may include a few forgotten teams that are surprise contenders in 2015, such as the Astros, Twins, or Blue Jays, which would be a nice addition to the usual teams we see every week.

Confirmed Games on SNB

July 12: Cardinals at Pirates
July 19: Red Sox at Angels

 



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